Saturday, January 2, 2010

Seraphim of Sarov and the Burden of One Another

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Today is the Feast Day of Seraphim of Sarov in the Orthodox Church. Seraphim is not widely known in the West, but he is an intriguing and inspiring saint. He has sometimes been referred to as the Russian St. Francis given his humble way of life and unusual relationship with wild animals. For years, he lived in an isolated hermitage where

Only the birds and the wild beasts visited him, and he dwelt with them as Adam did in Paradise. They came at midnight and waited for him to complete his Rule of prayer. Then he would feed bears, lynxes, foxes, rabbits, and even wolves with bread from his hand. St Seraphim also had a bear which would obey him and run errands for him.

Here is another story from his life that I find particularly interesting and edifying:

One day, three robbers in search of money or valuables once came upon him while he was working in his garden. The robbers demanded money from him. Though he had an axe in his hands, and could have put up a fight, but he did not want to do this, recalling the words of the Lord: "Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt. 26: 52). Dropping his axe to the ground, he said, "Do what you intend." The robbers beat him severely and left him for dead. They wanted to throw him in the river, but first they searched the cell for money. They tore the place apart, but found nothing but icons and a few potatoes, so they left. The monk, regained consciousness, crawled to his cell, and lay there all night.

In the morning he reached the monastery with great difficulty. The brethren were horrified, seeing the ascetic with several wounds to his head, chest, ribs and back. For eight days he lay there suffering from his wounds. Doctors called to treat him were amazed that he was still alive after such a beating. For the rest of his life Seraphim walked hunched over and in pain.
This and the quote above are borrowed from here.

Years passed and Serapim’s reputation as a holy man grew. Eventually, he began to receive visitors offering them spiritual counsel as well as physical and emotional healing. One morning,

Seraphim’s three aggressors [the three who had beaten him so badly years ago] appeared on his clearing. They were led by a huge one with a red face, who sobbed like a child. When Seraphim ran forward to greet them, they fell on their knees and touched the ground at his feet with their foreheads.

“Forgive us, man of God, forgive us and tell us what penance we must do. Lord have mercy upon us! Shall we leave our families, journey to the Holy Land, chasten our sinful flesh under the monk’s habit?

Seraphim raised them up from their knees. “Go back to your families and your work; strive to be loving to your wives, children, parents, and to each other, to all. You’ll find it hard enough. Try to be of good cheer and sin no more. I’ll do penance for you, I’ll carry your load on my back. Go in peace.” (Flame in the Snow by Julia de Beausobre, P. 104).

For the rest of his life, Serphim carried a bag of rocks slung over his hunched-over back. When he returned to life in community he substituted a large, heavy iron cross around his neck. He thus bore the burden of his attackers.

I am moved by the tenderness with which Seraphim treats his former attackers and the gentle charge he lays on them which he admits they will find hard enough. But, more, I wonder at his offering to do penance for them.

I am not sure what it might mean to do penance for someone else’s sins. But, I do appreciate what I take to be Serphim's recognition that we belong more intimately to one another than we are often inclined to admit. If indeed we are "the body of Christ and individually members of it" and "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it" then perhaps our responsibility for one another runs as deep as Seraphim's actions imply. Might it even be that the charge to "bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" could include bearing the burdens of each other's sin? Perhaps this is what a life of forgiveness is about.

I wonder if bearing one another's burdens might also mean bearing the burden of one another. How often do we distance ourselves from the "burden" of others who we find burdensome? How different would disagreements in church (at any level) - or, for that matter, family and political disagreements - look if we understood those with whom we disagree as members of ourselves whose burden we are to bear even if they have hurt us, even when bearing with them weighs on our hearts like a bag of rocks over our shoulder? Would we be as quick to relish the latest outrage of our foes? Would we speak of them with derision and disdain? Would we dismiss their questions and concerns with contempt? What if we, like Seraphim, attempted penance on behalf of those with whom we disagree or who we find most disagreeable? Or at the very least what if we practiced bearing the load that is the other for the sake of our own souls?


A. D. Hunt said...

I don't recall who said it to who but I was reminded of a scene in The Brother's Karamazov where it is said that we must take responsibility for everyones sins. That is an oversimplification but I simply don't remember more than that.

Matt Gunter said...

As I recall, Fr. Zosima says that early on in the story.

FiliaPrima said...

I really like this, Fr. Matt. I love it that you keep a blog, and the top 10 lists are a great boon :).

Anonymous said...

I can't see the point of dealing with people who are troublesome unless you absolutely have to.
If it's part of your job, you can seek ways to minimize involvement.
If it's social, why bother? Life has enough problems and pain already without deliberately dealing with and hanging around those who are disfunctional or simply irritating.

Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for dropping in. You're questions are good ones. It all depends, I would suggest, on what we understand to be the fundamental reality of the universe in which we live.

Christians belive that at the heart of it all is a dance of love in which we are meant to participate. Hence, learning to love - even those who are troublesome is what aligns us with the fundamental purpose of the universe. And Seraphim is an example of one so aligned.

If there is no fundamental purpose to the universe (aside from whatever purposes suit us), then all bets are off and you are correct - there is certainly no reason to be bothered by those who are toublesome. Nor is there any reason to be troubled by the injustice and other kinds of suffering that bother others.

I hope you'll keep dropping by my little blog.